Young Athletes: The challenge of balancing sports and academics

Student athletes face both wonderful and challenging times. Not only do they work very hard to meet high level academic requirements, they also devote long hours to sport training and competition. Most young children start playing sports for fun—running behind a soccer ball, hitting a baseball down the line, or seeing a golf ball flying through the air. However, once young athletes start participating in varsity or club teams, a shift takes place and frequently, playing for fun becomes playing to win.

Winning can be very seductive. Athletes receive praise, attention, and applause. It is a magical moment, and for good reason, an experience worth having again. However, there is often a shift in that focus is placed on end results rather than on the process leading to success. In a culture that overemphasizes success, measured as achieving end results, young athletes and adults alike may inadvertently experience too much pressure. Consequently, the “fun” factor turns into a “job” factor, thus removing the primary reason that led to her or his participation in sports in the first place.

Wanting to excel in sports can become emotionally draining. They use after school hours for practice if not in playing matches. Weekends are often used to participate in either school or club tournaments, often requiring long distance driving. They make huge sacrifices that often come at the expense of not sleeping enough. There is a lot of pressure on these young people who are trying to navigate both the challenges that come with doing well, and the disappointments that come when expectations are unmet.

Student athletes are learning at an early age that success is not only about knowing and accepting the challenges that come along the way, but also learning how to manage those challenges. Disappointments are inevitable. Unfairness and “bad luck” are also part of the fabric of their chosen sport. Blaming others may be a quick reaction in the moment, and is rarely satisfactory in the long term. Rather, a more well-known and sustainable approach is cultivating sports mental skill strategies that help one to be emotionally well-prepared before and during competition, as well as facilitate the negotiation of common setbacks encountered in any competition.

Sport psychology promotes peak performance by providing psychological strategies that address emotional and environmental factors in athletes. Successful athletes overwhelmingly agree that the emotional component is key to achieving peak performance. They have mastered the ability to remain focused on what is in front of them. What matters to them is the next serve return, shot, or hit. Just like top athletes, young athletes can learn to have a great short term memory that helps them forget recent distractions while also being able to retrieve long-term memory of past successes. They also learn to embrace competition by accepting that they can only manage factors that are within their control while they let go of those factors which are outside their control.

Equally important is for coaches and parents to reward young athletes when they use appropriate mental strategies to negotiate emotional setbacks, regardless of the final outcome. As they learn to negotiate challenging experiences, they begin to develop a stronger sense of self and a higher level of self-confidence. If they are constantly told what, when, and how well to do it, they will either attribute their success to goals set by others or minimize the opponent’s strength. In either situation, it creates a non-empowering learning culture. On the other hand, through fully embracing their own path and passion to achieve success, which includes learning from failures and assuming responsibilities, young athletes mature as self-assured individuals. The collateral positive effect to ingraining sports mental skills is its applicability to life lessons, which is exactly what coaches and parents hope their young athlete to embrace.

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